By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
President Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb finally ended the Second World War in the Pacific. The existence of such weapons remained central to postwar geopolitics, and conditioned everything that happened subsequently. Moreover, the Second World War did not end with a general peace treaty; there was nothing equivalent to the Treaty of Versailles after World War II.
America: Leading the World
The principal victors—America and the Soviet Union—disagreeing over the future of Eastern Europe, and ideologically hostile to each other, fell out almost at once.
Britain, severely weakened by the war, signaled to President Truman that it could no longer maintain its worldwide imperial policy. Truman made the momentous decision not to revert to the customary American policy of isolationism, but, rather, to take up the burden of world leadership that Britain had relinquished.
A temporary dividing line drawn through Europe became permanent. Winston Churchill described it as the ‘Iron Curtain’.
Soviet possession of nuclear weapons by 1949 created a geopolitical stalemate. Neither side could afford to upset the balance of terror. Nuclear weapons were much cheaper to maintain than conventional armies and were, thus, attractive as the foundations of American defense policy.
Nevertheless, their proliferation over the ensuing decades, to a point of ‘mutual assured destruction’, caused anxiety and an intense moral debate about their legitimacy inside the United States.
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Mistrust among the Allied Leaders
The victors after the war couldn’t agree about how nations liberated from the Nazi Empire should be disposed of. Roosevelt, and then his successor, Truman, believed that the European countries liberated from Germany should hold free elections. That is, they should be democratically self-determining.
The ‘Big Three’ leaders—the leaders of Britain, America, and the Soviet Union—met periodically during the Second World War, first at Teheran in Iran in November 1943, and then at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945, and then a few months later at Potsdam in Germany in July 1945, just after the fighting had finished, to discuss war policy and the postwar situation.
In retrospect, it’s clear that Roosevelt was too trusting of Stalin, and too skeptical about Churchill, whom he regarded as a reactionary imperialist. Churchill had been quite explicit about the idea that he wanted to prevent the breakup of the British Empire if possible. He had asked Roosevelt to get together before the Yalta meeting so that they could plan a strategy with which to greet Stalin’s demands. However, Roosevelt refused to do so, and so tensions and mistrust among the three Allied leaders were already evident before the fighting finished.
Division in Europe
Stalin, the Soviet leader, was determined to create a pro-Soviet zone inside Eastern Europe, and his armies were in place, enabling him to enforce his will. One of the first things he did was to order the assassination of key anti-Communist leaders in Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria.
Thus, already within a year of the fighting finishing, Churchill, in a speech at Fulton, Missouri, coined the phrase ‘Iron Curtain’. He said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent of Europe.”
That phrase stuck, and became the name for the demarcation point between the western pro-American side, and the Soviet sphere of influence east of that. Churchill said that he hoped that America would lead an alliance of the western nations after the war, just as it had led the wartime alliance.
Soviet Brutality in Eastern Europe
Meanwhile, Poland, eastern Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania all became satellites of the Soviet state, with Yugoslavia semi-independent under the Communist leader Tito.
Periodic revolts, for example, revolts by the Czechs in 1948, and again in 1968, and by the Hungarians in 1956, were repressed by Soviet troops with great brutality. The Americans were powerless to intervene except at the risk of full-scale nuclear war.
These regimes remained very, very repressive. For example, when Saxon Hausen, one of the Nazi death camps near Berlin, was liberated from the Nazis, it was at once converted into a Soviet concentration camp, where Stalin exterminated all his political rivals just as Hitler had exterminated his.
Economic and Environmental Dividing Line
In the decades after the Second World War, the Iron Curtain became not only a political dividing line, but also an economic one. Economic growth rates were far slower in the centralized economies of eastern Europe. There was no competition among different manufacturers; industries were very heavily bureaucratized. They had a cumbersome central direction, and a cynicism and resentment spread through the workforce whose productivity was correspondingly low.
There was also very severe environmental deterioration and destruction in the Soviet zone, making Poland and East Germany and parts of Czechoslovakia some of the most polluted places in the whole world. The people of Eastern Europe, bitterly resenting Soviet domination and longing for the kind of prosperity and freedom they began to hear about in the West, felt themselves to be imprisoned.
Common Questions about How the Second World War Reshaped Geopolitics
‘Iron Curtain’ was the name given to the demarcation point in the continent of Europe, between the western pro-American side, and the Soviet sphere of influence east of that.
The ‘Big Three’ leaders were the leaders of Britain, America, and the Soviet Union: Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, respectively.
Along with being a political dividing line, the Iron Curtain also became an economic dividing line as economic growth rates were far slower in the centralized economies of Eastern Europe. There was no competition among different manufacturers; industries were very heavily bureaucratized. They had a cumbersome central direction, and a cynicism and resentment spread through the workforce whose productivity was correspondingly low.